The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump rallies in red-state America — and faces a sea of empty blue seats

President Trump held his first campaign rally since March on June 20 in Tulsa, covering a wide range of topics from covid-19 to civil unrest and more. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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He threatened violence against protesters, endangered his supporters by flouting health recommendations and endured a 110-day, coronavirus-induced dry spell, but when President Trump finally stepped back onto his rally stage Saturday night in Tulsa, he saw a sea of blue seats.

The thousands of empty arena chairs, after his campaign had hyped overflow crowds and ticket requests totaling more than 1 million, symbolized the beleaguered state of Trump’s presidency and of his quest to win a second term.

To a nation broken by a pandemic and a recession — and with a racial justice movement roiling communities across the country — Trump offered neither reconciliation nor rapprochement.

Instead, he put up a fight.

Trump belittled the seriousness of the coronavirus, mocked health experts and recalled, “I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down,’ ” because as more tests are conducted, more infections are discovered. And the president uttered a racially insensitive term in describing the “many” alternate names for the novel coronavirus that originated in China.

With cities coast to coast pulsating in protest of racial injustice, Trump used his bully pulpit to exacerbate the chaos and division in hopes of capitalizing on the nation’s fraying bonds. He condemned what he called “this cruel campaign of censorship” and, in reference to the debate over removing monuments and memorials to Confederate generals, declared: “They want to demolish our heritage. . . . We have a great heritage. We’re a great country.”

Trump’s rallies have long been singular events in U.S. politics, but rarely have so many currents charging through the country converged as they did Saturday at the BOK Center in Tulsa. The president’s appearance in Oklahoma, where coronavirus cases have surged and local officials have discouraged mass gatherings, was itself an act of defiance.

Trump’s performance masked a presidency in peril. This past week alone, the Supreme Court twice stymied Trump’s administration, including on one of its signature immigration policies. His former national security adviser alleged that he sought help with his reelection campaign from Chinese President Xi Jinping. His firing of a U.S. attorney who had been investigating his associates drew loud condemnations.

And he has yet to present a comprehensive governing plan to end the pandemic, provide long-term relief for the millions of people who are unemployed or address the burgeoning civil rights movement with significant action.

Falling further behind in the polls and bruised by bouts of self-sabotage, Trump planned to show onstage in Tulsa how he intends to fight for a second term.

If Trump had settled on a new message for this relaunch phase of his campaign, it was difficult to discern. His 101-minute address was rambling and discordant, ranging from some of his favorite hits, such as attacks on CNN and the “fake news” to dark imagery about “Joe Biden’s America” as overrun by rioters and looters to a lengthy monologue explaining his slow and unsteady walk down a ramp and two-handed sip of water last weekend at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

At his first campaign rally in months, President Trump told the Tulsa crowd on June 20 that there was more to the story of his West Point commencement speech. (Video: The Washington Post)

The president spun an alternate reality of the national crises over which he presides. In Trump’s telling, he has been the victim against dangerous villains old and new. He portrayed presumptive Democratic nominee Biden as a hapless captive to “the left-wing mob.”

Trump basked in the raucous, mask-free adulation of thousands of supporters, some of whom traveled long distances to take in the show, though the crowd filled about half of an arena that holds 19,000. The campaign built a second stage for Trump to address an expected overflow crowd of thousands, but with no attendees, the speech there was scrapped, and workers quickly got to dismantling the stage.

Relative to the campaign’s expectations, this was a humiliation. After campaign manager Brad Parscale touted that more than 1 million people had requested tickets to the Tulsa rally, Trump told reporters on Monday: “We expect to have, you know, it’s like a record-setting crowd. We’ve never had an empty seat. And we certainly won’t in Oklahoma.”

The general election campaign is at an inflection point. With 4½ months until Election Day, Trump is trying to press the reset button, as some advisers described it. The president has resumed large-scale campaigning despite the pleadings of public health officials for people to avoid such gatherings.

Biden, meanwhile, plans to continue campaigning largely through live-stream technology in accordance with social distancing recommendations. The former vice president only recently returned to having in-person events at all and requires attendees to wear masks, which Trump does not. Attendees in Tulsa, who had to first agree to forgo the right to sue the Trump campaign if they get infected, were given masks but were not required to wear them.

With polls showing Biden far ahead — including a Fox News Channel national survey released Thursday that had Biden leading Trump 50 percent to 38 percent — Trump was trying to show off one asset that his opponent lacks: the ability to turn out a crowd. Massive, rowdy rallies are part of Trump’s political DNA and, as he and his advisers see it, give him an edge against Biden, who in normal times during the final stretch of the primary season drew smaller crowds.

“Rallies have been the lifeblood of the Trump campaign,” said Corey Lewandowski, an outside adviser to the president who managed his 2016 campaign. “It’s an opportunity for him to deliver a message not only to the audience there but nationally, in an unfettered way.”

Trump’s rallies have long been opportunities for him to vent his grievances and let off steam. His last rally was March 2 in Charlotte, shortly before much of the country shut down because of the coronavirus. And after more than three months largely confined to the White House, his confidants inside and outside the government said taking the stage in Tulsa provided Trump with a needed release.

“The president is going stir-crazy,” said a former senior administration official who, like some other people interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “In addition to the normal grievances over how he’s portrayed in the press and how coronavirus is unfair to him and the race riots are unfair to him, it’s all been intensified and magnified by being cooped up.”

Biden has called Trump reckless for hitting the campaign trail even as the virus continues to spread.

“Now he’s just flat surrendering the fight” against the pandemic, Biden said Wednesday in Darby, Pa. “Instead of leading the charge to defeat the virus, he just basically waved a white flag and has retreated. He’s so eager to get back on his campaign — to his campaign rallies — that he’ll put people at risk.”

Other Democrats said Trump’s rally performances, long marked by his glorification of political violence and race-baiting, are insensitive and counterproductive at a moment when the nation needs healing and unity.

“They are a representation of what the worst of Trumpism is,” said Abdul El-Sayed, a leading liberal organizer in Michigan who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018. “He makes them a show of force and showcases the ideals of white nationalism and elements of fascism that alarm black and brown people in this nation.”

“He thinks there is power when a small group of people get magnified when they’re all concentrated in one room, but there is risk there,” El-Sayed added. “People could look at that scene, at the Trump coalition, and wonder if they really want to be part of that anymore.”

Several advisers to embattled Republican senators up for reelection said privately this past week that they are struggling to balance what they see as an electoral imperative to demonstrate independence from the president with the pressure they feel to appear with Trump at his rallies.

“It’s a terrible situation,” said one of these Republican strategists, who said one solution is for candidates to give speeches before the president arrives to avoid being photographed together. “If you’re onstage in a MAGA hat smiling wide, the Democrats will make it an ad in a second.”

Former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a Trump critic, said: “The decision they will all have to make is, when he comes, will you go onstage? You go and you’re with him. You don’t go and you might not seem genuine to many Republicans.”

Trump told reporters earlier this month that he would resume regular campaigning, with events planned for Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Texas, in addition to Oklahoma, though no other rallies have yet been publicly announced.

The president will travel to Phoenix on Tuesday for an event spotlighting youth supporters, but it is not a campaign rally. Despite the uptick in coronavirus cases in Arizona, Republican officials there said Trump supporters are eager to turn out.

“They’re starving for it,” said Robert Graham, a former Arizona Republican Party chairman. “The people that are rally-bound — and, as you know, going to rallies is a workout just to get in the front door — are starving for this activity. People want an excuse to get out.”

Joe Arpaio, the longtime former sheriff of Maricopa County in the Phoenix area who received a pardon for criminal contempt charges from Trump in 2017, said “I praise his courage” to be willing to fly around the country holding rallies during a pandemic.

“If people don’t want to go, they don’t have to go,” said Arpaio, an early backer of Trump’s 2016 campaign. “. . . People can take care of themselves. I think he has a lot of courage to do these rallies. He’s not hiding, staying locked up in home arrest. He’s out there fighting for his country.”

Trump’s aides said there is an ongoing discussion that verges on a debate among the political team about how to hold rallies this summer and whether to stage them at open-air venues, such as airport tarmacs or hangars, or indoor arenas, whose stadium-style seating makes crowds appear swelling and raucous on television.

Another point of tension is the choice of locales, with some Trump aides wanting to send the president only to battleground states and others keen to venture into reliably Republican states such as Oklahoma, where he can draw a big crowd and galvanize his base.

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), a conservative activist and Trump backer, said people in states such as his that are often overlooked by presidential campaigns would “erupt with joy” at the chance to see Trump perform in person.

“Only Elvis himself could match his ability to draw a crowd in Mississippi,” McDaniel said.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has considerable influence over the president’s travel schedule and rally site selection and is the one who talks through possibilities with Trump and executes whatever the president ends up deciding, according to people familiar with the internal dynamics.

“In the past, presidents did Oval Office addresses and Franklin Roosevelt had fireside chats. Donald Trump is the master of the rally. It’s his bully pulpit. He feeds off that energy,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chairman of Newsmax and a Trump friend. He described the president as “anxious to get back on the road.”

Sean Sullivan and Matt Viser contributed to this report.